They pulled it off. They did exactly what they needed to do. Nothing more. Nothing less.
The United States defeated Nicaragua 3-0 in the final Group B match for both sides on Saturday night. Goals from Joe Corona, Kelyn Rowe, and Matt Miazga sent the U.S. atop the group table and onto the quarterfinals while Los Pinoleros Albiazules are now done with their Gold Cup campaign which saw them lose all three of their matches.
With the result of the other Group B fixture going final earlier in the day, a 3-0 win for Panama over Martinique, the U.S. were presented with the challenge of needing to win by at least three goals to win the group outright, thus avoiding a quarterfinal match-up with Group A winners Costa Rica, one of the strongest sides in the competition.
“We knew exactly what he had to do to win the group,” U.S. Manager Bruce Arena said post-match. “We told the players we had to win by three goals. It wasn’t that hard to figure out.”
Arena’s team was sputtering coming into the group stage finale in Cleveland. A lackluster showing in a 1-1 draw with Panama in Nashville to open the tournament was followed by an inauspicious performance bordering on historic embarrassment, a fortuitous 3-2 victory over Martinique in Tampa Bay.
The squad had lacked any real fluidity or cohesion with very few individual players doing themselves any favors when looking at potential involvement in World Cup Qualifying in the near future.
While it wasn’t all sunshine and lollipops at FirstEnergy Stadium, the home of the NFL’s Cleveland Browns, there were more than enough positives on Saturday to at least partially wash away the sour taste of Wednesday in Tampa. The happiest storyline of all for U.S. players, coaches, and fans alike is that the team has progressed to the knockout stages of the Gold Cup, likely with a quarterfinal fixture a tad less daunting than a showdown with Los Ticos.
“Clearly it’s a good result for us,” said Arena. “But it was a game where we wasted some opportunities and made things hard on ourselves.”
Seldom will two missed penalty kicks in the course of a ninety minute match not play a heavy role in leading to your team’s overall demise. Yet that is precisely what happened for the U.S. in Cleveland, two excruciating misses from twelve yards out not the mortal wounds they could have easily been, thanks in large part to the full commitment of a 22 year-old center-back in the late stages of the match, the heroic player making just his third appearance in a U.S. shirt. (We’ll get to him in a moment. There was some redemption on display about an hour earlier.)
Club Tijuana midfielder and San Diego native Joe Corona opened the scoring for the Yanks against Nicaragua in the 37th minute. It was Corona’s first goal for the U.S. since the 2013 Gold Cup.
In a year that has seen Corona return to Tijuana (after almost two years on loan at Veracruz and with Los Dorados de Sinaloa) and renew his love affair with the Xolos faithful at Estadio Caliente, performing at a consistently high level and helping the border club make it to the Liga MX Clausura semi-finals after a first place regular season finish in his first campaign back in town, the man who epitomizes the “sin fronteras” mentality has also seen another opportunity with the national team come his way in 2017 with his inclusion in this Gold Cup roster.
After Alejandro Bedoya sent a low cross into the eighteen on a humming skim of the pitch, Corona controlled beautifully, calmly working for a shooting angle before cutting loose with the right foot from fifteen yards out. The shot took a brutal deflection off of Nicaragua’s Bismarck Veliz and sneaked past the outstretched arms of goalkeeper Justo Lorente. Corona, just days past his 27th birthday, had no problem claiming the goal, and the U.S. went into the break knowing they still needed at least two more to complete the task for the night.
They looked well on their way when Dom Dwyer was taken down inside the box for a penalty in the 51st minute, but Dwyer (who stepped up to take the penalty himself) saw his attempt saved by Lorente, a fine sprawling stop low and to the keeper’s right.
Rowe made it 2-0 five minutes after Dywer’s miss, a close range finish tucked in at the near post after a nice bit of buildup from Bedoya. It was a fine moment for the New England Revolution star, Rowe’s first goal with the national team. There was still work to do.
It appeared as if it was all written to perfection when Bedoya forced Nicaragua’s Juan Barrera into a clear handle of the ball on a slide inside the area just five minutes after Rowe had put his name up in lights. Corona stepped up to take the second penalty kick for the stars and stripes in a wild eleven minute spell. Instead of guaranteeing himself Man of the Match honors, Corona saw his attempt from twelve yards meet an identical fate to that of Dwyer. Corona’s rather tame shot was saved by Lorente, the Nicaraguan keeper playing spoiler all by himself.
(Arena was seen by television cameras after his team’s second missed penalty of the match uttering a certain two word phrase that might lead one to believe he was paying homage to suspended Mexico Manager Juan Carlos Osorio.)
The tension was palpable as the U.S. were still desperate for a third. That’s when a certain 22 year-old who is still under contract at Chelsea stamped his authority on the international stage.
Miazga was the trailing runner at the back post in the 88th minute, a free kick curling in off the right-foot of Graham Zusi. With a diving header that would have made Brian McBride proud, Miazga powered the ball low past Lorente for his first ever U.S. goal, and for the all important scoreline of USA 3 Nicaragua 0.
“We knew we could get it,” Miazga said of the goal. “We were a bit unlucky with the penalties, but we knew if we kept knocking on the door that something would come. I got my chance, and I just tried to bury it.”
Other Stories of Note
Bill Hamid: Playing in goal for the U.S. for the first time since 2014, and just the third time ever, Bill Hamid offered good service to Arena’s side. Forced to make just two saves in the match, Hamid did enough to help the U.S. keep their first clean sheet of the tournament.
Bedoya’s Baby: After taking the Budweiser Man of the Match award for his fantastic overall performance on Saturday, Bedoya said goodbye to his teammates and coaches. The Philadelphia Union midfielder will be leaving the Gold Cup squad to be with his wife for the birth of their second child.
The Cavalry is Coming: Both Michael Bradley and Tim Howard were in attendance in Cleveland on Saturday, the customary captain of the national team and the iconic goalkeeper set to join up with the Gold Cup squad for the knockout rounds as part of the rejuvenation cavalry for which the tournament’s unique rules allow. Each team is permitted up to six roster changes after the group stage. Decisions must be made within 24 hours of a team’s final group game. It has been confirmed by multiple sources that Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey, and Darlington Nagbe are the other three first-team players joining the U.S. camp.
Gold Cup Quarterfinal, USA v. TBD, Wednesday, July 19, Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia
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